Amateur loses status after winning car in Tiger TV commercial
by Steve Elling, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- As cameras secretly rolled from deep within the palmetto bushes, Mike Freeman launched a 7-iron shot into the air as Tiger Woods, the world's best golfer, stood nearby, suppressing a smirk that indicated something funny was afoot.
Minutes later, Woods handed the Longwood salesman the keys to a $42,000 sport-utility vehicle for knocking his shot on the green. It was a moment that already is being celebrated in a series of new TV commercials.
Ten weeks after the hidden-camera gag that Buick has turned into a national marketing campaign called "Tiger Trap," Freeman realizes what he stepped into while filming the television commercial.
The reigning Orlando City Amateur champion has been banned from tournament play for a year for accepting a prize that voided his amateur standing in the eyes of the rule-makers at the U.S. Golf Association. Like his participation in the filming, the violation was unintentional.
Welcome to the Tiger Flap.
It was May 1 at the par-3, 12th hole at The Legacy Club at Alaqua Lakes in Longwood. Freeman was playing a friendly round when Woods appeared out of nowhere and offered to play the hole with the foursome.
Woods challenged Freeman's group, as well as other foursomes, to a nearest-to-the-pin contest, though most players thought he was kidding. Woods was the only player aware that the gag was being taped.
Freeman, a medical-supplies salesman, knocked his shot on the 157-yard hole to within 10 feet. When Woods whipped out the keys, an incredulous Freeman yelled, "Just for hitting the green? You're serious? Awesome."
It was pure coincidence he was there that day, and he had no idea how any of this came to be, but the USGA didn't see those as mitigating factors.
"What I did should not constitute losing my status," said Freeman, 39. "This was a situation where I didn't enter anything and didn't ask for anything. Because I hit the shot and happened to win something I didn't know was at stake, I'm history?"
Three other Orlandoans won 2004 Buick Rainiers during the filming of the well-received TV spots, which began airing June 18. However, the other three were recreational players who gladly sacrificed their amateur status for huge payoffs that could top $70,000 apiece, when royalties are added, by year's end.
Freeman faces a one-year suspension from amateur events at the state and national levels. Freeman also learned Wednesday that he won't be allowed to defend his title at the Orlando City Amateur July 25-27. Freeman is also the reigning Florida State Four-Ball champion, another event he had to sit out.
"I think they (the USGA) are still in the Dark Ages with regard to amateur status," said Jeff Tanner, the director of the City Amateur. "But I have to be a stickler for the rules, especially at a public tournament like this."
A few days after the taping, Freeman spoke with Florida State Golf Association, which called the USGA on his behalf. According to USGA rules, an amateur may accept no more than $500 in prizes at a single event.
"Because it was a contest, if you will, the rules of amateur status still apply," said USGA official Donna Anderson. "Whether he knows he's participating or not, it's still a prize he won based on his golf skill."
That's not nearly the end of it. By accepting royalty checks for appearing in the TV spots, several players who didn't win cars have blown their amateur status. Unlike Freeman, the others don't really care.
"I think it's the funniest thing in the world," said Longwood's Melody Bennett, who was playing alongside winner Beverly Rettinger and has already received a royalty check.
Another head-scratcher: Freeman must petition to have his amateur status restored next year. Until then, he can compete only in tournaments that include professionals. However, he cannot accept any prize money in those events, because he is seeking to regain his amateurism.
As Jim Demick, FSGA director. explained, "He's not really a pro, but he's not an amateur, either."
There's some question as to whether Buick warned the golfers that their amateur status was potentially in jeopardy as they signed the requisite paperwork.
Buick spokesman John Wray says all the winners were told. However, Rettinger can't recall being briefed.
"No one said to me, `In signing this paperwork and accepting this car, you will forfeit your amateur status.' That was never presented to me in any way," she said.
Longwood's Keith Kemp, who along with Joe Senecal were the other SUV winners, said: "If they addressed it, I don't remember. It might have been in the stack of documents we signed. I might have bought a condo in Puerto Rico, for all I know."
He can afford one. The royalty checks for the TV commercials began arriving this week and Rettinger estimates that each of the winners could earn upwards of $70,000, the vehicle included, by the time the TV spots stop running in the fall.
"This isn't the way I wanted it to work out," Freeman said. "I'm definitely not complaining, but I have to sit out a year, which hurts me more than anybody. I don't see why there couldn't have been a compromise."
(c) 2003, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.